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Berger v. Zeghibe

October 6, 2010

BERISH BERGER, ET AL., PLAINTIFF,
v.
RICHARD ZEGHIBE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

Defendant Mark Sahaya seeks to vacate or amend the Amended Civil Judgment entered against him on August 5, 2010, following a two-week jury trial. The evidence against Sahaya included testimony and exhibits regarding his role in: (1) a December 6, 2006 meeting between Defendants and Plaintiff Berish Berger; and (2) creating and sending two "Letters of Intent" which Berger received in January 2007. Presently before the Court is Defendant Mark Sahaya's Post-Trial Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment and in the Alternative, for a New Trial. Sahaya's Motion will be denied for the reasons discussed below.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises from an unmemorialized investment relationship between Berish Berger, corporate entities associated with him (collectively, the "Berger Plaintiffs"), and Defendants including Sahaya. The Berger Plaintiffs identified Sahaya as a member of a conspiracy to defraud Berger via "deceitful transactions in Philadelphia real estate." (Compl. ¶ 1.) According to Berger, Sahaya and his co-defendants obtained $36.5 million from the Berger Plaintiffs by inducing Berger to invest in two properties in Philadelphia: a parcel of land between JFK Boulevard and the Schuylkill River (the "River City Properties") and a five-story office building located at 2040 Market Street.

Sahaya acted as a liaison between co-defendants Eli Weinstein and Ravinder Chawla. (Trial Tr. 67, July 26, 2010; Trial Tr. 86-87, July 28, 2010.) At Weinstein's request, Sahaya arranged a December 6, 2006 meeting at which architect James Rappoport gave a presentation to pitch investment in the River City Properties to Berger. (Trial Tr. 66-67, July 26, 2010.) Weinstein, Sahaya, and Chawla were all present at this meeting. (Id.) Sahaya had a financial incentive to secure Berger's investment in the River City Properties as the "broker" or "facilitator" of the deal, although he did not actively participate in the meeting with Berger. (Trial Tr. 38, 52, July 22, 2010; Trial Tr. 69-70, July 26, 2010.) Rappoport's presentation depicted the River City Properties as a large high-rise development featuring skyscrapers fifty to sixty stories tall. (Trial Tr. 53, July 26, 2010.) No one present told Berger that the Philadelphia City Council was about to adopt an ordinance which would restrict building height on the land to 125 feet, rendering Rappoport's plan impossible to fulfill. (Id. at 71-72.)

Berger also became interested in the 2040 Market Street project at the December 6, 2006 meeting. (Id. at 78.) This project involved selling the air rights above the existing five-story structure. (Id. at 100, 135.) Approximately one week after the December 6 meeting, Sahaya prepared a letter expressing the interest of "Ram Associates" in purchasing the air rights at the 2040 Market Street site for $28 million. Sahaya prepared the letter in Chawla's office, using one of Chawla's computers. (Trial Tr. 125, July 20, 2010.) The letter was dated July 21, 2006. (Trial Tr. 91, 93-95, July 19, 2010.)

Sahaya then prepared a second "Ram Associates" letter, dated December 21, 2006, in which the purported buyer increased its offer to $31 million. (Berger Pls.' Tr. Ex. 18.) Sahaya had the letter faxed "to the United Kingdom" and directed Chawla and his co-workers to "make sure you remove the fax trailer before you do so!!!" in a December 14, 2006 e-mail. (Trial Tr. 97, July 19, 2010; Berger Pls.' Tr. Ex. 116.) Berger, who resides in the United Kingdom, received this follow-up letter in early January. (Trial Tr. 55, July 22, 2010.) Berger learned later that the purported air rights purchaser was a fabrication. (Id. at 56.) Sahaya ultimately received over $600,000 of the Berger Plaintiffs' money from Weinstein for his services. (Trial Tr. 68, July 26, 2010.)

The jury found Sahaya liable for fraud and conspiracy, but found him 0% liable for compensatory damages. However, the jury directed Sahaya to pay the Berger Plaintiffs $100,000 in punitive damages. The Court entered judgment against Sahaya accordingly.

Sahaya now moves for judgment notwithstanding the verdict under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. In the alternative, Sahaya argues that the Court must grant a new trial under Rule 59(a) to prevent injustice and correct a verdict that is "against the great weight of evidence." (Def. Mark Sahaya's Post-Trial Mot. to Alter or Amend the J. and in the Alternative, for a New Trial [Sahaya Mot.] 12.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion to alter or amend a judgment under Rule 59(e) "must rely on one of three major grounds: (1) an intervening change in controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence not available previously; or (3) the need to correct clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." ConsulNet Computing, Inc. v. Moore, Civ. A. No. 04-3485, 2008 WL 2950783, at *1 (E.D. Pa. July 30, 2008) (quoting N. River Ins. Co. v. CIGNA Reinsurance Co., 52 F.3d 1194, 1218 (3d Cir. 1995)).

Sahaya relies on the third ground. The question before the Court is thus "whether the evidence and justifiable inferences most favorable to the prevailing party afford any rational basis for the verdict." Bhaya v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 832 F.2d 258, 259 (3d Cir. 1987). The Court is not free to weigh the evidence, pass on the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its judgment of the facts for that of the jury. Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993). Rather, the Court "must determine whether a reasonable jury could have found for the prevailing party." Starceski v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 54 F.3d 1089, 1095 (3d Cir. 1995).

Sahaya moves in the alternative for a new trial under Rule 59(a). Courts may grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a). A trial court's discretion is limited when a party moves for a new trial because the verdict is against the clear weight of the evidence. To be overturned, the verdict must be "contrary to the great weight of the evidence; that is, where a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand." Pryer v. C.O. 3 Slavic, 251 F.3d 448, 453 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). A new trial should be granted for this reason only "when the record shows that the jury's verdict resulted in ...


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